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Featuring Matt Brezina.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Time is the one thing we can’t get more of, and so that’s why I’m so excited to have Matt Brezina on our podcast today.  He has given so much time to improving bicycle safety in San Francisco. I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with Matt and learn a little bit more about what he thinks we can do to keep more people safe in our cities.  Please note that we recorded this session with Matt before the California State Senate appropriations chair held the bill, meaning that it will not be brought up for a vote in 2019 but will be eligible in 2020. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: I was first introduced to my guest today, who is Matt Brezina, via his former roommate Tara Curtis, who some in the mobility space will know as the co-leader of the emerging mobility practice at transportation consulting firm NelsonNygaard.  And then I met Matt formally when he organized a bike ride around San Francisco when I was in town for the Micromobility Conference in January. And the reason I want to have Matt on The Movement is because he is engaged with a critical part of how we effect change in our communities, which is advocacy.  And his focus is on bicycle advocacy, and I’m eager to learn some of the lessons he’s learned on how he’s been able to bring about change on such an important topic like bicycle safety.  So welcome to the movement, Matt.

Brezina: Thank you.  Thanks for doing this.

Cohen: Let’s get started with an easy one, which is how did you get involved with bicycle advocacy?

Brezina: Yeah, I have used a bicycle as my main mode of transportation since about the age of 12.  I took that through high school and then to college. I grew up in a college town, but I was lucky enough to go spend time studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia the first time I really fell in love with a city and what having things close by really meant and having diversity close by and what it did to my mind, expanding my mind and my thoughts.  And then whenever I graduated I was like, “I’m going to make sure I end up in a city.”

Through a couple of paths, having spent some time in D.C. and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, I ended up in San Francisco.  And I was building a software company here. I was, as I did everywhere else, using my bike to get to work everyday. And it was seen as kind of a good place to bike.  Looking back on it, it’s not, it wasn’t. The thing that really opened my eyes to what we need to change about our streets is whenever I met my now wife and I realized that she didn’t use a bike.  She didn’t have a bike, and I was like, “Um, if we’re going to be in a relationship, like, this is the way I get a lot of places. I’d love if we could ride there together.” Like, when you ride a bike, the journey is half the adventure.

And so I got her a bicycle and started getting her to ride around town, and then I became really aware that I was that adventurous vehicular cyclist, and she was just somebody who wanted to ride to the park and not get hit by a car.  And it started opening my eyes to how much our roads need to change, how much our streets need to change. You know, that was like 10 years ago now. A few more factors came into play. I then got to spend some time in Europe, several different places, and saw, “Oh, wow.  What does a place look like that has safe infrastructure for people of all ages and abilities to be able to use a bicycle to get around?”

And then it just so happened that one time when my wife and I were traveling in Europe—we were probably in somewhere, maybe Germany or the Netherlands—two women were killed riding bikes in San Francisco on the same day, different collisions.  And that was Heather Miller and Kate Slattery, one in our park, the other one on a street, Howard Street in San Francisco that I ride all the time. And it kind of just blew up in our Twitter community. A lot of us got really mad because we had been saying how dangerous this is, and to lose two people that knew how to ride a bike and it wasn’t their fault that they were killed really put a fire under a lot of our efforts.  And that’s really when I kind of committed to getting involved.

Cohen: How long ago was that?

Brezina: That was almost three years ago.  June 22nd will be three years.  And for somebody to lose their life doing something that they are doing because of necessity because it’s the cheapest way to get around, or necessity because it’s the fastest way to get around, or because they just love it, it’s a really, really sad thing.  It’s wrong. It’s preventable.

The final thing that really came into play here is my wife and I around that time a few years ago were starting to think about having a family.  And so I was just thinking, like, “Well, I’m going to be that dad with my daughter on my bike, of course. And so we’re going to introduce this new person to the world, and I need to make sure these streets that we’re using to get around our community are safe for her too.”  And she now exists. Her name is Andalucia [ph], and she’s on my bike. She’s nine months, and our streets aren’t safe enough. And every day that I ride with or without her I think about how much change we need to have happen and how quickly. And that’s just what I’m trying to see through.

Cohen: I tell you, the scary thing—and Tess Rothstein who died, I guess, a month or two ago now—

Brezina: Also on Howard, the third person riding on that street in two and a half years.

Cohen: Wow.  And so you’re on the ground there in San Francisco.  And one of the things I saw from afar is the city responded, what looked like to me, in record fashion to add a protected lane certainly in part of Howard there near where she was killed when she was forced into oncoming traffic because someone who was parking opened their door.  Why does it seem to take a death to get change? Certainly it was resonant with you, and that kind of catalyzed some of your thinking about this, and certainly with Tess. Why is that?

Brezina: Yeah.  Well, the first thing I’m thinking as you say that is it used to be that a death wouldn’t even get change.  And, in fact, I can point to lot’s of places where the road needs to change, and it hasn’t, and somebody has died there, and they could change to make it safe.  The reason Tess’s block, the couple blocks around where she was killed were changed were because of a couple of things. One was a directive within our city authored by the mayor that said the site of any collision that leads to somebody’s death or serious injury, the city will evaluate and have a response within 72 hours.

And so there’s a bunch of us that—there’s people that will bike by each day, each hour since that collision happened and put pressure on the city to make sure they followed through on it.  And the city, to give them credit, have taken that responsibility seriously. And so that’s why we got change there. It was partially because they had that directive to say, “Hey, we’re going to do this.”  And then with People Protected we organized two People Protected bike lanes on that street the evening of that collision and one week later to put pressure on the city to make sure something happened, lining hundreds of people up on that street.

It’s good that they are starting to respond to this.  Before they just didn’t even change anything when someone died.  Now, we shouldn’t have a human sacrifice for every block of protected bike lane.  And cities have and politicians have these priorities from lots of different angles.  In our city it’s a lot about our housing crisis; we have a mental health crisis; and we have lots of priorities.  And, you know, they’re just drawn to what’s the most pressing need. And something that lifts everybody’s heads up is when we lose somebody, somebody’s life is ended because of our street design.  So, again, we’re trying to prevent that and change the streets before that happens.

Cohen: And certainly on that bike ride that you led, which was really a generous thing to do for the community—and it was really, really great to see all these folks experiencing San Francisco and also experiencing with some more expert riders or who are more familiar with the streets, and certainly for me coming from a much smaller environment where I’m pretty comfortable riding around my area but certainly in San Francisco it just feels like a different level.  And so having that group together was certainly nice. And right after that you mentioned and earlier in this conversation you mentioned your involvement in People Protected. So why don’t you give the audience a little bit more information about the work that People Protected is doing?

Brezina: Yeah, so we were attacking this problem of unsafe streets many different ways, practical urbanism, going to community meetings, whatever it took, and we just weren’t seeing the results we wanted.  And I was out on a street in our city that has a famous unprotected bike lane, Valencia Street. About six blocks of it are protected because of our work right now, but the rest of it needs to get done.

But I was out there with this woman, Maureen, who has biked in the city for car-free.  She’s a mother in the city. She uses an electric bike. She’s not like a super athlete; she just wants to get to go where she’s going safe, and so she’s really involved in this movement as well.  And she said, “Matt, what if we did Hands Around America standing on the bike lane?” And what she’s talking about is lining up a bunch of people on the line that separates the car lane from an unprotected bike lane.  And doing that and putting our bodies out there with 10, 20 people we could create for a block a protected bike lane and keep cars out of the bike lane and keep bicyclists safe. As Maureen says, “If the city won’t protect us, we will protect our own.”

This is a stroke of brilliance from Maureen.  She’s a really creative person. And I heard it and immediately—I generally don’t think I have the best ideas, but I recognize great ideas, and my income-producing side of my world is investing in people and entrepreneurs.  Like, I can identify a good idea. And I heard this, and I was like, “Maureen, that is a really good idea.” And the things that are going through my mind is that, “Hey, there’s this incredible visual of lining people up on the street.”  There’s an image that goes around the internet once in a while that shows this mother pushing a stroller in an unprotected bike lane. When anybody sees that, they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s so dangerous. Look how crazy they are.” That’s the same place we ride our bikes with our kids.  There’s no more protection when you’re pushing a stroller or riding a bike.

So us going out and standing on a bike lane, it’s this incredible visual of people thinking, “They’re crazy.  Look how dangerous that is.” And we’re like, “That’s where we bike everyday. It’s dangerous every day, and it’s no more dangerous for us to stand out there.  It’s probably safer.” Second, a bunch of bicyclist can come by, and they’re going to have a safe, protected lane for a block. That is powerful in kind of growing the movement of people that say our streets need to change.  And then finally this is something that shows how many people care about changing our streets, and that’s powerful for media, social media, and ultimately the politicians that change the policies.

So I just saw this, and I just thought the idea was brilliant.  And, you know, I did two things as part of making this what it is now.  One, is I named it. So we knew that the mission was about protected bike lanes.  I think we’ve changed the dialogue from people now calling what used to be called class-one or class-two or three—I don’t even know what those mean.  We say, “There are unprotected bike lanes, and there are protected bike lanes.” Doing that and putting that in the name was really powerful. Putting a human face on it, you know.  It’s a bunch of people out there. And then just organizing a group of now—we’ve had over 300 participants in People Protected bike lanes, maybe 400, and that’s something I’ve been really working on, just recruiting people to join and participate with us.

And so we did the first one about two years ago on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco.  We’ve probably done like 14 of these over two years where we go and line up, up to 150 people in a line on a street.  And I can point to streets across the city that have protected lanes now and didn’t when we first stood there. And I think our work and efforts to organize around it helped transform that.  So Howard is one example. Townsend is another, Upper Market, Valencia. It’s been really powerful.

And actually the thing that I’m most proud of is how people have taken this idea and this concept and used it now around the world.  I think we’ve crossed probably 30 cities that have done People Protected bike lanes. There’s People Protected bike-lane groups in Waterloo and Los Angeles and Mexico City.  And I just heard—I’m very excited for this to hit social media, but in about 10 days there’s going to be a marching band People Protected bike lane in the D.C. area.

Cohen: Wow.  That’s really amazing.  The difference between riding in a protected lane and an unprotected lane, like you said, is really night and day.  And I recall a Twitter hashtag, and I can’t remember what I saw, which was funny and how sad it is. I think the hashtag was #HeresSomePaintKid.  And it was similar to your example of the mother pushing the stroller. It was a kid in a bike lane with a truck bearing down on him, and, you know, the paint is not going to do you much good.

Brezina: I like the hashtag #PaintIsNotProtection as well.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  That’s another good one.  So I think I’ve seen as you’ve done People Protected that you’ve gotten some political support, folks who have come out as part of that.  And I guess I want to use that to maybe lead into the next question, which is are there some leaders either in San Francisco or other places that are really doing this well as far as proactively creating a real safe and equitable mobility network?  If so, what are they doing differently than the others, and if not, what’s the barrier to making that happen?

Brezina: The first people that come to mind are like Jan Gehl and the kind of transformation that he helped author in Copenhagen.  They’ve done a really, really great job. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world to spend time in because of how safe and convenient it is to get around by bicycle.  On the American context I look at Janette Sadik-Khan. I believe it was her under the Bloomberg administration and her tenure that the parking-protected bike lane was first invented, which is this perfectly American auto-centric compromise, but I’ll take it.

Cohen: [LAUGHS]

Brezina: That design helped usher in a transformation of our streets because the politicians could kind of not have to compromise between losing parking and getting a protected bike lane.  Like, they lose some parking, but they still get to keep some. So the parking-protected bike lane I think we have Janette and that group’s efforts and Bloomberg’s support a lot to thank for this.  I’m trying to think who really stands out now on the political side. I think we’re still kind of a little bit far away from it.

You know, I don’t think the boomers are going to do it for us, and they tend to dominate a lot of the national politics.  I think there are some Gen X leaders, but there’s no question that within the millennials there’s going to be leaders that push this, and it’s just a question of can we get them into positions of power as quickly as possible because the planet it burning and people are dying.  Our movement is not dissimilar to the gun control movement. They both kill about the same number of people per year, guns and cars, about 40,000 people. I think the awareness of gun violence is higher than the awareness of car violence, but the action on gun violence, we still are not seeing it.

Right?  Like, the awareness is there.  The millennials get it, but they’re just not in a position of power, and all the people in the position of power, at least on the national level, just don’t care about these issues in the same way and don’t want to make the changes.  One thing I’m hopeful of is maybe like we are doing with housing in California—we’re kind of getting around the NIMBYism of local control and supervisors and pushing legislation at the state level. We have a great state senator, Scott Wiener, who lives in my neighborhood who is pushing great housing policy and legislation at the state level.  Once he gets a few more housing bills done, we can work with him on pushing legislation that could change our streets, take pedestrian, bicyclists, bicycle and scooter users, non-car drivers, transit users into account when you’re designing a safe road.

Cohen: You mention Scott Wiener, and he’s co-sponsored a bill in the California State Senate, SB50.  I think a lot of people say he’s essentially tackling the third rail of politics here with housing.  But, as you know living in San Francisco, this is a foundational issue, as is mobility, and obviously that’s related to housing.

Brezina: For anybody that’s not aware, SB50 is a transit-oriented-development housing bill.  So it particularly up-zones properties within a quarter or half mile of rail or frequent buses, so it very much is tied to mobility.

Cohen: Looking at that and what’s necessary there, he is really willing to tackle that third rail.  I get the sense that there’s a lot of advocates that are behind him, and there’s also some NIMBYs who are against that.  Is there anything else beyond just getting more folks who are willing to tackle those hard subjects elected? Is there any more cover that advocates can provide to allow whoever is in there now to be able to support things like SB50?  And do you have any other kind of suggestions on how advocates can help support those who are willing to take those steps forward like Senator Wiener?

Brezina: Yeah, I mean, I’ve actually gone and contributed my time and effort towards that particular bill.  I’ve actually gone on a lobbying day among a bunch of people who invest in technology or build technology companies, giving our perspective on how the housing shortage is affecting our industry and the state’s economy.  And so I went around to assembly member and to senator offices and just told them my personal story. And I talked about how this is affecting companies. I also talked about how it’s affecting my family, you know, my musician brother, my teacher sister-in-law, who they’re moving to Mexico from San Francisco.

A big part of the reason is the cost of housing.  My brother’s band was started in San Francisco on a stoop on Haight Street, and all the members of the band used to live in the city.  With my brother moving—he’s the last one to live in the city—they will all be gone. And so I have gone to support that bill because of that type of change in my life as well as what it’s done to the companies that I participate with.  But then I’ve also made phone calls.

You know, you don’t even have to go to the office; you can just make a phone call.  We’re kind of off the track of transportation stuff, but it’s so tied to the housing issues that we have, and so I follow and support California YIMBY and SF YIMBY, and they kind of give us alerts whenever we need to make phone calls.  And I just call, and I talk to legislative aides. It’s important for those aides in these offices to hear from people that support more housing versus just the people that don’t want more housing. And it should support a lot of the transportation stuff that we’re talking about as well.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think clearly we’re on the right track.  I think the question that I have is very similar to the one you really tackled earlier, which is we can’t wait to have a death for every protected bike lane we get in the city, so how do we expedite this process of moving towards that future that’s safe and equitable and accessible?  And especially on a planet that’s burning, as you said.

So I think the more we can get involved with the political process, either become an elected official ourselves or even just running and pushing the conversation forward and then getting involved in the political process in a less advanced format but still an important one, which is just calling up your representatives and writing letters and letting them know that you’re voting and you’re letting other people know how you feel as well.  So, Matt, how can our audience engage with you if they’re interested in connecting with you or learning more about some of the work you’re involved in?

Brezina: The Twitter community around this urbanist stuff is so good to the point of being distracting.  But I am very easy to catch on Twitter. My handle is @Brezina and then People Protected is @PeopleProtected on Twitter.  We obviously talk a lot about our San Francisco, but we also try to promote actions that are happening around the country, whether it’s a People Protected bike lane or most recently we were one of the groups that helped organized the Red Cup Project in honor of @darsol who was an advocate in D.C. who was killed riding his bike, and he created protected bike lanes with red Solo cups, a very powerful symbol.  And people across the country did protected lanes in his honor.

Cohen: Yeah, that was just last week or two weeks ago, and it was almost the kind of asynchronous version of the People Protected in the sense that it doesn’t have quite the same power as the people being in that lane, but it can last a little bit longer until some vehicles take out the red cups, or some people have used tomatoes.  And you can see the red cups or the splattered tomatoes there in that paint, and you can easily see how little protection or no protection really that they provide.

So it’s just a very stark reminder of how fragile we are if we don’t have protection.  And I think the work you’re doing, Matt, is critical to helping more elected officials make these tough decisions, and I applaud your efforts to keep pushing them and to keep making your family and hundreds of thousands of other families in San Francisco and other places safe.  So thank you so much.

Brezina: Thank you.  And the last thing I’ll quickly say is I’m always looking for more creative ideas that help push this narrative and this awareness forward.  And, like I said in the beginning, the great ideas come from anybody and anywhere, and sometimes people just don’t know how to get that idea out there or how to execute on it, so people can reach out to me about that.  I’m here to elevate ideas and movements because we need everybody’s creativity. This is a really big problem. We are going to deal with the car scar on our planet for a long time, and we need to accelerate that transition away as quickly as possible.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  So, Matt’s super power is recognizing good ideas and elevating them, so let’s take advantage of that to help keep more people safe and healthy.

Brezina: Cool.  Thank you.

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